Leader of the pack

Can you learn it or are you just born with it?

When professor Stephen Martin assumed the role of president of the University of Wollongong’s Dubai campus in 2004, he walked around sharing a basket of dates he’d received with the Sri Lankan cleaners on campus. “No one had ever done that before,” Martin says, still shaking his head in slight surprise.

Moments like these are small but telling about the understated approach of a man clearly comfortable with leadership, but who also cares deeply about fairness and has sought to combine the two throughout his diverse career. 

It includes a stint in the political bearpit as a Labor Party member of the Australian Parliament, the sporting arena – where his principles were tested as much off the field as in Parliament – and local government and tertiary education. Martin was appointed chief executive officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia from 1 January last year.

His first exposure to good leadership came at Wollongong High School when he was a student. “The headmaster, Jack Linehan, was feared by the boys but respected,” he recalls. 

“I had an economics teacher, Jack Huxley, who was also a rugby union coach. These people set personal goals for themselves that spread to us. They had a strong moral compass.”

He recognised the same qualities in former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, whom he sums up as “fearless, with an incredible ability to listen to advice, grasp issues fast, digest them and find solutions”.

Illustration: Greg Bakes

Illustration: Greg Bakes

“He did not court popularity, but wanted to make a better Australia,” Martin says. “He had a real reform agenda.” However, it was frustrating that given Keating’s style of leadership, television could never  communicate his genuine personal charm, Martin adds. This, he says, is a persistent problem. “Leaders have to overcome image problems, they have to have exceptional powers of persuasion and they have to be able to explain hard and unpopular decisions. Just look at our banks and how they have lost the respect and trust of the community. That’s a failure of leadership.”

Martin served in the second-term government led by former ACTU president Bob Hawke, and remembers the contrast between Hawke’s approach and Keating’s: “Hawke allowed his ministers a fair bit of head, more a ‘chairman of the board’ style.”

Even though they did not share the same political views, Martin also admired long-standing Liberal prime minister John Howard, who defeated Keating at the 1996 election. “Howard was not flamboyant like Keating – he was stubborn and ran a very tight ship. He was able to impose discipline and communicate a very clear message and a consistent plan. And he was tough, things just rolled off him. He was Teflon-coated, like Neville Wran [former premier of New South Wales], another great leader.” Martin succinctly sums up the leadership problems of Kevin Rudd, ousted as prime minister in June 2010: “He did not listen, praise, delegate or interact with his caucus. He never gave ownership of anything to anyone. He always had a field marshal’s baton in his knapsack that he got out pretty quickly.” In contrast, he admires Rudd’s successor, Julia Gillard, for her powers of persuasion, while acknowledging that her communication skills are wanting and she does not carry her message effectively into the wider community.

Nonetheless, he considers much of the criticism levelled at her as unfair and unconsciously sexist. “It is still the case that the bar is set higher for women in leadership than for men,” he says. “I’ve seen it in politics time and again. One of the few places where women have found great leadership roles is in our universities.

“But I do think some men are still scared of working with and for them.”

Once a town planner in Wollongong, Martin watched with dismay the demise of his home town’s council following a corruption scandal. “A good leader should know when the rot has set in,” he says bluntly. “You have to have superior people skills and talk to your employees. You have to know people’s strengths and weaknesses, identify any sensitivities and keep them in line.”

It seems to have become fashionable in the media to talk about the so-called “psychopathic boss”. Martin agrees that the behaviour of some leaders suggests borderline personality disorder.

“You see it in some leaders in the corporate world in the US, people like former Apple boss Steve Jobs and Facebook co-creator Mark Zuckerberg, who are flawed geniuses, obsessive, ruthless types. I think the internet is breeding different types of leaders. I don’t know if we are like that here. Men like [Bill] Clinton and [Barack] Obama are driven in a unique way, although I don’t believe a politician can be as ruthless as a corporate leader because, as a politician, you have to bring people with you.

“In business there has been more latitude for extreme behaviour, especially in the pre-regulation era. You only have to look at people such as News International mogul Rupert Murdoch and [mining] billionaire Clive Palmer as examples.”

He sees worrying trends in the modern workplace that are making leadership more of a challenge. “Bullying is the new virus in human resources management and leaders are struggling to deal with it,” Martin says.

Nobody's perfect: Rudd failed to engage his caucus but  Gillard often fails to get her message out

Nobody's perfect: Rudd failed to engage his caucus but

Gillard often fails to get her message out

“There are huge attitudinal shifts occurring in relation to social and economic norms: lack of staff loyalty; the sense of entitlement of Gen Y and the way they want speedy promotion but have no sense of commitment; the taking out without wanting to put back in mentality.

“It all goes back to the very first experience we have of leadership in life – in other words, our parents. That’s where our values get set. I used to coach rugby under-sevens on Saturday mornings and was always astonished at how parents just dumped their kids there. It was symptomatic of not taking responsibility for their attitudes.”

Sport is Martin’s passion, but he has had to make tough decisions about the game he loves, rugby league. “Leadership is about knowing when to quit over a principle,” he says, referring to the so-called “Super League war” of the mid-1990s – when Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch battled over the TV rights to rugby league – and he resigned as a director of the Illawarra Steelers in protest against some of the club’s actions.

“Sport is now a commercial product, which it was not when I was growing up. Leaders of clubs now have way more responsibility towards sponsors and the media,” he says, citing National Rugby League luminaries such as David Gallop as someone he admires, together with earlier role models like Ken Arthurson and John Quayle. “They were great visionaries for rugby league; admitting new teams and coming up with campaigns like the ads featuring Tina Turner were a marketing coup.” On the field, he singles out Australian league legend Darren Lockyer as “a charismatic leader, steely, quietly spoken, whom you could take home to meet your mother”, along with Paul Gallen and Andrew “Joey” Johns.

October 2021
October 2021

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